What can Philosophy of Religion Offer to the University?


Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org, we are asking philosophers of religion to tell us what philosophy of religion can offer to the modern university, considered either as a whole or through the lens of one or more university disciplines. Our blog is full of fascinating contributions of this kind.

Last year we witnessed a fabulous response to our challenge to look inwards and say what our field is and does, and we’ll soon present our analysis of those creative blog contributions. This year we are looking outwards as well as inwards, asking philosophers of religion to tell us how our field can impact the university or specific university disciplines.

For this theme, as for last year’s theme, we prefer to ask and listen rather than stipulate and define; it’s how we live up to our intention to speak for the entire unruly world of philosophy of religion. Ultimately we hope to analyze the themes in these blog entries and present our findings to you.

So read the blog entries and learn about philosophy of religion in the modern university from the experts who work in the field.

Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Carl Raschke on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

raschkeCarl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The philosophy of religion is more important than ever to the curriculum of the modern university and offers something that is increasingly in short supply among academics – a broad, probing, and critical perspective on the more encompassing issue of the nature of religion as a whole.

The urgency of boosting both the contributions and the prestige of the philosophy of religion in the university is driven by two key developments in recent decades: 1) the proliferating public perception that only scientific investigations can ascertain what is real or valuable in human affairs; 2) the companion belief that all religious views, values, or perspectives are somehow equivalent to each other.

Historically, religion and science have never been so neatly separated from each other as the public is wont to assume. Einstein frequently made references to God in his public accounts of relativity theory. And various studies by the Pew Foundation have found a more complex, nuanced, and even conflicted relationship between the epistemological commitment of professional scientists and their personal religious orientation. Philosophy of religion with its multi-century legacy of sorting out theological from scientific claims can play a much more robust role in these discussions than it has done to date.

More overarching “theological” questions – i.e., questions about the relationship between the infinite and the finite or, as Paul Tillich famously put it, between the “conditioned” and the “unconditioned” – have historically been intertwined with scientific inquiry, and one cannot leave these sorts of “meta”-questions to science alone.

Science itself is reaching its own internal limits, according to recent conversations going on among top theoretical physicists. “The next few years may tell us whether we’ll be able to continue to increase our understanding of nature or whether maybe, for the first time in the history of science, we could be facing questions that we cannot answer,” Harry Cliff, a particle physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, stated at a public talk in Geneva, Switzerland.

Given that what is now considered theology today tends to be largely tradition-centered and confessional, while the philosophy of science has scrupulously avoided religious questions, it remains for the philosophy of religion to pick up the slack.

Second, the age of radical pluralism and spiritual consumerism, in tandem with the co-optation by certain political movements of traditional religious symbols and ideas has led to a certain popular inattention, if not ignorance, what it means to be “religious” in a deeper sense than what one merely professes. The broad, sprawling, multi-disciplinary zone of inquiry we now know as religious studies has sensitized us to the seemingly infinite array of “ways of being religious.” Yet it has also had the opposite, and often detrimental, effect of leaving us both reluctant and lazy about making necessary, normative judgments about the complex, and qualitative differences between these different representations of religion.

Only the philosophy of religion with its broader, “dialectical” sweep of the issues themselves can prevent this paralysis of judgment, or what in the past I have termed the “default of critical intelligence,” when it comes to the question of religion. For example, the persistent and intense controversy over whether certain kinds of religious beliefs can be integrally associated with acts of terrorism, or whether those beliefs are both inconsequential and episodic, cannot simply be resolved by arriving at some consensus on who truly is a Muslim, Christian, Jew, etc. Philosophy of religion can assist us in figuring out whether the last question is even meaningful at all, or it can bring to bear certain criteria for settling the matter in the first place.

Our democratic deference toward maximizing the amount of religious diversity in the public sphere has to be tempered with a serious intellectual inquiry into the criteria and procedures for adjudicating various religious claims, which sometimes border on sheer pretentions. We cannot rely merely on descriptivist methods as well as the variety of not-so-thinly-disguised religious apologetics that counts today for the academic study of religion.

I myself have argued, especially in last two published books (Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory, University of Virginia Press, 2012; Force of God, Columbia University Press, 2015), that the study of religion, if it is truly to find a distinguished place within the modern, secular university, needs a strong and salutary infusion of theory. But the framework for the theory of religion has always been the philosophy of religion. And our understanding of religion in a world where religion is in the headlines almost daily becomes profoundly impoverished without the voice of the latter.


David Schrader on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

David SchraderDavid Schrader taught philosophy of religion for thirty-one years at Loras College (Dubuque, IA), Austin College (Sherman, TX), and Washington and Jefferson College (Washington, PA). He also served as Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association from 2006-2012. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

What philosophy of religion has to offer the modern university almost certainly differs somewhat depending on the specific mission of the university.  My own answer to this question will be both personal and confessional.

I was drawn to philosophy as an undergraduate fifty years ago because philosophy seemed to be the one discipline in which I could jointly satisfy my love of mathematics and my passionate interests in religion and politics. I was immediately drawn into philosophy of religion. That interest led me to pursue graduate study in the history of religion prior to pursuing my graduate study in philosophy. Prior to my last six years of employment, as Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association, I taught for thirty one years in three small liberal arts colleges. The first of those was a Catholic diocesan college, where my course in philosophy of religion was looked upon with some suspicion my some of my senior colleges who saw it running at cross-purposes with the late 1970s traditional “Philosophy of God” course that a senior priest taught. The two institutions at which I spent most of my career teaching philosophy of religion were small liberal arts college with modest or no religious affiliation.

In the settings in which I taught, philosophy of religion offered something parallel to other “philosophy-of” subdisciplines. Much as students interested in the sciences benefit from studying philosophy of science, students interested in religion benefit from studying philosophy of religion. The difference is that a lot more students are interested in religion than are interested in science. This gives philosophy of religion a particularly important contribution to make to the university. In addition to the interest that many students have in religion, it is clear that religion plays a significant role in contemporary American culture. If a central purpose of the university is to graduate students who are capable of thinking and reflecting clearly, critically, and accurately about the world in which they live, the ability to think and reflect clearly, critically, and accurately about religion should be part of university education.

The kind of philosophy of religion that I think has much to offer universities regardless of their particular sectarian orientations is not to be confused with philosophical theology. Philosophical theology is a subdiscipline of theology, while philosophy of religion is a subdiscipline of philosophy. From a confessional standpoint, my own deeply Lutheran theological orientation leads me to see philosophy to have little to offer as a foundation for theology. By contrast, philosophy has a great deal to offer as a vehicle for critical examination of religion and for clearer understanding of religion. Philosophical theology undoubtedly has a contribution to make in universities affiliated with religious denominations that see philosophy as providing a grounding for religion, but not in universities without such affiliation (unless housed in a Religious Studies Department).

I will conclude my contribution by identifying what appear to me some, but not all, of the major issues over which university students puzzle that may benefit from engagement with philosophy of religion.

Reason and Religion: There are clearly those who claim that reason can either count decisively for or against religious belief. This is a question that philosophy has engaged for over two thousand years. It is important to examine both contemporary and historical arguments for and against religious belief in appropriate context. The natural theological arguments of Saint Thomas, for example, are raised against a backdrop of Aristotelian physics. Sound philosophical practice requires that the background beliefs about nature that underlie the arguments be recognized and explained. Similarly, Hume’s famous argument about the unreliability of miracle reports arose in the context of a broader early 17th Century debate about miracles. That context also needs to be acknowledged. More generally, it is important for students to engage the larger question of how tightly evidence constrains belief and how reason may help refine beliefs that are rationally neither required nor forbidden.

Language: Should the language we use in religious discourse be taken as accurately descriptive of God? What is the relationship between language and reality? Does God differ from natural reality in ways that affect the adequacy of language to describe accurately? Additionally, how do names function? We see in public and religious discourse debates over whether Christians and Muslims worship “the same God.” Any responsible answer to that question requires that we understand reasonably the putative reference of the term ‘God’ as used by Christians and ‘Allah’ as used by Muslims. To the extent that both refer to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” we should be driven to a conclusion.

Religious Diversity: This is certainly related to both of the above issues. This issue goes well beyond religious differences between Christians and Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, etc. Not all Christians are in full theological agreement. Even Christians within the same denominational tradition have theological disagreements among themselves. Are these simple issues of one being right and the other wrong? Or are there ways of engaging religious disagreement that allow for more sympathetic forms of conversation.

Coherence of Religious Traditions: This is not a widely addressed issue within philosophy of religion, but it is an important issue for many students. In the current American environment religion frequently becomes hijacked by politics. There is a significant political alliance between some socially conservative Catholics and some socially conservative Evangelical Protestants. The pivotal issue that has cemented the political alliance has been abortion. That political alliance, however, carries over into other issues. I have seen socially conservative Catholic students who think that they should oppose biological evolution because of their Catholicism. Some theologically conservative Evangelical Protestants see their religious views as opposing biological evolution. Yet there is nothing in the Catholic intellectual tradition that would drive traditional Catholics to oppose biological evolution. Students need to learn to avoid simply following political movements, conservative or liberal, as an alternative to thinking carefully about their own commitments.

Merold Westphal on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

merold-westphal-bwMerold Westphal is Distinguish Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Fordham University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I believe that what follows applies to both private and public colleges and universities and to both religious and secular schools. By ‘religious’ schools I mean those who make a serious attempt to integrate their religious identity with their academic program. Neither being “church-related” in either its historical origins or current constitution nor having a denominational or interdenominational chaplaincy suffices to categorize a school as religious in my sense.

Of course, religious schools may have students and faculty who do not share the institution’s religious identity. But they should expect that some students choose that school in part because of that identity; and they should insure that a critical mass of the faculty (an unquantifiable percentage, once it is allowed to fall below 100%) are committed to it.

For religious schools philosophy of religion can and should be in the mode of “faith seeking understanding.” This does not preclude being ecumenical rather than parochial about it; but it does mean that no one should be surprised or offended if special attention is given to the resources, history, and problems of a particular religious tradition. The school’s raison d’etre is, at least in part, to be an academic arm of that tradition.

I take philosophy to be critical reflection on our beliefs and practices. So philosophy of religion is critical reflection on our religious beliefs and practices. But who are we? I think in terms of concentric circles. For secular schools, we are the heirs of western civilization, and “our” religion is the Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices, rooted in the Bible, that for better and for worse have played a role in our becoming. But we are also members of the human race, and “our” religion includes the eastern and tribal religions that we can picture as belonging to an outer circle, less central to our own identity but not simply extraneous. For religious schools there will be an inner circle in which “our” religion will be some particular tradition with biblical roots. So, in varying degrees, all three circles represent “our” religious beliefs and practices and are appropriate subject matter for philosophy of religion.

Such reflection can have two rather distinct senses: philosophizing about God or, perhaps, the Sacred, and philosophizing about religion, observable human networks of beliefs and practices that purport to be in touch with a reality that is transhuman and not observable, at least not directly. In either case, such reflection can ask two rather distinct questions: normative and descriptive. On the one hand, are the beliefs true, and are the practices appropriate? On the other hand, how can the meanings of the beliefs and practices be clarified so as not to be confused with different, if not always easily distinguishable, meanings? Analytic philosophy of religion tends to focus on the former questions, phenomenological and comparative approaches on the latter.

Persons whose thought about God and religion barely got to the junior high school level but have a college level understanding of science and technology, music and literature, psychology and sociology, etc., will fit all too well the title of a book by J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small. Given the close relation, de facto, between religion and morality, the latter may be seriously undeveloped. The discrepancy within the educational system will represent a cultural prejudice against religion. Serious study of the philosophy of religion is one way of providing students, whether or not they are active in a religious community, with an adult level of understanding of God and of religion that is on a par with their understanding of other dimensions of their world.

Here’s another benefit. To a large degree we have inherited from the Enlightenment the view that reason is universal and univocal. It is neutral, objective, unprejudiced, and unconditioned. Religions whose highest authority lies in some purported divine revelation, some “bible” or sacred text, for example, are particular, seeing the world through lenses that represent a prejudice (pre-judgment) that is formally and sometimes materially irrational.

So, the title of Kant’s book on religion, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, is also a good name for what we can call the Enlightenment project in philosophy of religion. The task of philosophy is to bring religion up to the level of rationality in one of two ways: rejecting outright those beliefs and practices that offend reason and reinterpreting those that can be salvaged by giving them quite different, “rational” meanings.

This view is still with us in various forms. But it is clearly false. Consider the most powerful examples of this project from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, respectively: Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel. One doesn’t have to delve very deeply into these philosophies of religion to see that they are mutually incompatible, each deeply at odds with the other two. But this shows us that the “reason” to which they appeal as their norm is not universal, objective, and free from presuppositions. It is rather a quite particular worldview or paradigm that functions as the a priori condition of all possible interpretation, whether of scriptural texts or of the worlds of nature and spirit. So far from being an unprejudiced “view from nowhere,” the three versions of “reason” and the resultant philosophies of religion relate to one another more like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – combining some overlap with deep divergence.

I call the systematic recognition of this finitude and particularity of human reason the hermeneutical turn and take it to signify the difference between modern and postmodern philosophy. But this means that ‘postmodern’ is not narrowly the name for French poststructuralism, since this turn has been made in various analytic philosophies (including Kuhnian philosophy of science), continental philosophies, and American pragmatisms.

Philosophy of religion taught in the modern mode offers the university a view of human reason that is unable to sustain itself and a view of religion resting on this faulty foundation. Taught in the postmodern mode, with an explicit hermeneutical turn, it offers the university a more modest understanding of human reason and allows us to explore the ways in which language, tradition, and social practices give historical particularity to our thinking. This puts religions of the book and philosophies of reason on a more nearly level playing field in what Ricoeur calls “the conflict of interpretations.” Philosophy loses is special privilege in relation to religion.

Ilaria L.E. Ramelli on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Ramelli%20Dr%20Ilaria%20crp%204169Ilaria L.E. Ramelli is Professor of Theology and K. Britt Chair (SHMS, Angelicum), Senior Visiting Professor at major universities, and Senior Fellow at Oxford University, Princeton University (Hellenic Studies), Durham University and Sacred Heart University Milan (Ancient Philosophy). We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

This is a very intriguing and helpful question for us scholars — and, I hope, for our students. Thank you for asking it and having us reflect on this!

From my personal experience and my way of conceiving and doing scholarship and all academic and scientific service, I think the main contribution of Philosophy of Religion [PoR] to the modern University is probably helping bridge the gap between Religious Studies / Theology and Philosophy departments. The philosophy-theology/religion divide is legitimate and has its theoretical and historical reasons, but can prove detrimental to scholarship, especially in the study of ancient and late antique thought. Also in light of the universalizing, and not compartmentalizing, etymology of “University” (Universitas), PoR as a discipline within modern University can work against the compartmentalization of philosophy, religious studies, and theology departments – and not only departments, but also competences, ways of thinking, and work. An excessive departmentalization takes away the capacity for complex thinking, complicating perspectives, and interdisciplinary and innovative research and scholarship.

Broadening, interrelating fields, and gaining larger pictures and better vantage points, must not be at the expense of rigorous deepening and competence in one’s own specialization. Ideally, broadening, intertwining, and deepening should go hand in hand to the extent that is humanly possible. This requires a tremendous amount of (individual and team) work and competence, but it also repays to a huge degree in terms of quality of research that can positively advance academic scholarship and thinking.

PoR shows that Religion can, and must, be studied philosophically, and that Philosophy can, and must, have Religion too as its object. PoR in Universities can also take a diachronic, historical approach, which, in my view, can, and still has to, yield extremely rich and momentous results.

More generally, PoR shows that the divine, like human philosophical reflection on the divine, belongs to modern University and occupies an important place in the scholarly and didactic work done in contemporary Universities. And didactic work at University, especially at the graduate level, makes sense only if firmly grounded in living, active scholarship of the highest quality. Professors should be great, accurate, and innovative scholars themselves.

Yet more broadly and importantly, PoR reveals that humans cannot help thinking about the divine and engaging into some relation with it — whatever their religious convictions, including atheistic ones. God is relevant to the modern University and what is going on there. That is, God is relevant to human thinking and human life (which is what University should reflect and enhance).

The perspective and method of PoR (as the branch of Philosophy that investigates Religion philosophically) are those of Philosophy, but they are applied to Religion — and religions. Philosophers of religion in Universities could thus belong to both departments, though primarily, from the disciplinary viewpoint, they should be home in Philosophy departments.

Scholars in ancient and late antique philosophy are in turn found either in Classics or in Philosophy departments, depending on the academic traditions of their Universities. But they study a period in the history of thought in which philosophy was closely related to theology and religion, and had to do with the exegesis of theological traditions. This often took the shape of allegoresis, from Stoicism to Middle/Neoplatonism, including patristic Platonism. Allegoresis was part and parcel of philosophy in the Stoic and Platonic traditions, and showed precisely the connection between religion and philosophy! It indicated how religious traditions expressed philosophical truths. See my “The Philosophical Stance of Allegory in Stoicism and its Reception in Platonism, ‘Pagan’ and Christian,” IJCT 18 (2011) 335-371; “Valuing Antiquity in Antiquity by Means of Allegoresis,” in Valuing the Past in the Greco-Roman World. Penn-Leiden Colloquium on Ancient Values VII, eds. James Ker and Christoph Pieper, Leiden: Brill, 2014, 485-507; “The Philosophical Role of Allegoresis as a Mediator between Physikē and Theologia,” JbRP 12 (2013) 9-26.

In antiquity and late antiquity, theology was part and parcel of philosophy. The study of the divinity was the crowning of philosophy. I highlighted this point myself in a number of studies. Carlos Fraenkel, Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press) also illustates well that for many “pagan,” Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers before the Enlightenment, philosophy and religion were not really distinct.

Of course, I am not advocating a confusion of methodologies between contemporary philosophy and theology, or simply a return to pre-Kantian or pre-Cartesian philosophy, or even to ancient and medieval philosophy as a necessary paradigm for doing philosophy academically today. But perhaps I would like to see more interest in ancient and late antique philosophy by philosophers of religion and philosophers in general, and in turn more interest in PoR by scholars in ancient philosophy. Also, patristic philosophy, particularly patristic Platonism, in which theology/religion was prominent (just as it was in “pagan” Neoplatonism!), should better be considered part of ancient philosophy and studied as such.

Academic journals and series could be devoted to patristic philosophy. Hopefully the gap could be bridged between patristic scholars, who often are not very familiar with ancient philosophy, and scholars in ancient philosophy, who often do not even know patristic philosophers, or discard them as non-philosophers, merely because (one could suspect) they are not conversant with their thought.

An approach such as that offered by PoR helps a great deal study ancient and late antique philosophy and theology. As is well known, there exists no word for “religion” in Greek, Latin, or Hebrew, and the concept itself is elusive in ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman thought and culture. (See Jörg Rüpke, Religion of the Romans, Cambridge: Polity, 2007, 5-12; Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, New Haven: Yale University, 2013.) But significantly there is a word for “philosophy” in Greek, where it was invented, and Latin, and there is a word for “theology” too, coined again in Greek, as the part of philosophy that deals with the divine, and also interprets religious traditions (literary, cultic, icongraphic…) in philosophical terms.

PoR was indeed already practiced by ancient and late antique philosophers, “pagan”, Jewish, and Christian (and Islamic) alike, from Stoic allegorists to Middle and Neoplatonists, Philo and Origen of Alexandria, down to Eriugena and beyond. For Origen, biblical exegesis and the study of the divinity pertained quintessentially to philosophy (as I shall clarify in Origen of Alexandria as Philosopher and Theologian, Cambridge University Press). These intellectual giants, ancient and medieval philosophers of religion, may provide a fruitful source of inspiration for philosophers or religion in our modern Universities.

Eric Steinhart on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

steinhartEric Steinhart is Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Some modern universities are sectarian.  They are committed to specific religious traditions.  To teach at such a university, a professor may have to sign a statement affirming his or her faith in some specific creed.  Sectarian universities have their own uses for their philosophies of their religions. At a Christian university, the philosophy of religion is probably going to be some version of Christian apologetics.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But not all modern universities are sectarian.

Some are secular.  They are public universities, which, at least in the United States, are legally obligated to adhere to the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  If philosophy of religion is Christian apologetics, then it really should not be taught in public universities in the US.  It might even be illegal.  And indeed most contemporary philosophy of religion textbooks are texts in Christian apologetics.   Outside of the US, of course, laws are different.  Nevertheless, in any secular university, the students likely come from diverse religious backgrounds.  So a philosophy of religion course can’t be relevant if it’s just apologetics for one religion. Apologetics for any religion has no business in the modern secular university.  And if philosophy is the pursuit of truth, rather than the handmaiden of theology, then again apologetics has no place in the modern secular university.   Fortunately, apologetics, Christian or otherwise, is not the only way to do philosophy of religion.  But it should be obvious that a course which just offers some general information about world religions isn’t a philosophy of religion course.  The philosophy of religion isn’t religious studies.

Philosophers can nevertheless ask many important questions about religion generally.  There are definitional questions: what is religion?  And many sociological and psychological questions about religion are relevant in philosophy.  But philosophy of religion, as a secular discipline, can ask important questions about religious truth and value.  At least in the West, or in the Abrahamic religions, religious truth claims seem very different from other kinds of truth claims.  Religious truth claims seem heavily isolated from evidence and immune to revision.  Here’s a philosophical problem involving truth and value: do the conceptions of value and truth found in the Abrahamic religions lead to religious violence?  How are religious beliefs and values involved in practical syllogisms whose conclusions are violent actions?

There is no doubt that religions have contributed to the goodness of the world.  But today, sadly, they often seem mainly to be sources of conflict.  So one task for philosophy of religion is conflict reduction.  Secular philosophers of religion can try to work out ways to reduce the conflicts between different religions, or the conflicts between religions and science, and so on.  Many philosophers have done this.  They’ve argued that all religions point to the same ultimate truth or ultimate reality.  Or that science and religion don’t really compete.  A globally ecumenical approach to religion can be valuable in secular universities.  Students from diverse religious backgrounds need to learn how to work together, both in college and in their business or political lives after college. Such an approach is philosophical, because it deals in intensely abstract concepts.

Another strategy for secular philosophy of religion is somewhat historical.  It’s not a history of religion course, but a course which shows how religions evolve, how they are born, live, decline, and die.  Religions form a phylogenetic network.  For example, in the West, there were pre-Christian religions that contributed ideas to Christianity.  And new post-Christian religions are currently emerging.  This kind of course shows students that their own religious ideas are not immutable truths.  It can help to open their minds to religious diversity and tolerance.  It can help reduce conflict.  But it isn’t oppositional: it doesn’t oppose modern atheism to Christianity, but shows, for instance, how modern atheism grows out of Protestant theology.  This sort of evolutionary approach to the secular philosophy of religion isn’t merely a historical survey.  It reveals the dynamics of concepts, arguments, and patterns of religious practice.

A third strategy for secular philosophy of religion is to try to explore the future of religion.  There are three large classes of possible futures here.  One class of possible futures, which philosophers have explored, contains the futures without any religions at all.  Those are essentially secular futures.  Of course, they don’t need to be secular humanisms.   A second class of possible futures contains those in which the old axial age religions have mostly been replaced with new religions.  Philosophers of religion can work on the development of religions that aren’t bound to tribal identities.  We can work on the development of universal religions.  The task of constructing your own religion is an interesting class exercise.  A third class of possible futures involves the evolution of religion into something different.  Today there is evidence that religion in the West is evolving into spirituality.  But spirituality is currently extremely vague.  Philosophers of religion may work to clarify it.  And perhaps spiritualities can be developed in ways that are acceptable by all human animals.  If so, then philosophy of religion in the modern secular university might become philosophy of spirituality.

Leslie A. Muray on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Muray_Les_webLeslie A. Muray is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Curry College. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In my ruminations below, I am dealing with philosophy of religion not as it is practiced and taught in modern universities but where I think it needs to be and what it needs to do. As such, much like Robert C. Neville and John B. Cobb, Jr., I do not draw a sharp distinction between philosophy of religion and theology.

Unlike the preoccupations of the dominant analytical school of philosophy, I see philosophy as a practical wisdom for living. Whitehead’s vision of speculative philosophy resembling the flight of an airplane, beginning on the ground below, soaring to the heights above, coming back and landing on the ground provides a powerful image of this. In other words, philosophy begins with lived experience, reflects on it, and returns and illumines lived experience.

Philosophy as practical wisdom for living is preeminently critical thinking. In the words of my department’s stated goals, “For any course in Philosophy or Religion at Curry College, the fundamental objective is: to demonstrate the ability to step back from commonly held beliefs, examine and assess those beliefs as well as alternatives to them, and determine the consequences of adopting any of those beliefs.”

The definition of religion from the Latin roots with which I want to work translates as “to bind together.” At its best, this is a unity that does not obliterate diversity and pluralism but rather affirms them. If one applies this vision of unity to the modern university, instead of unity, one sees the fragmentation of the disciplines, symptomatic of the fragmentation of modern life.

In my vision of the role of philosophy of religion (and theology) in the university, philosophy of religion would seek to bring the disciplines together in wrestling with issues of importance (such as climate change). Holistic yet affirming distinctiveness, philosophy of religion would truly thrive as practical wisdom for living.

Shubha Pathak on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

PathakSShubha Pathak is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at American University in Washington, D.C. We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion offers to the modern university both elegant postulations of the principles by which life’s central questions can be identified and answered and capacious catalogues of culturally variegated responses to these questions. Thus, in figurative terms involving the imaging of human bodies, philosophy of religion acts both as an X-ray machine detecting the system of bones that structures human corpora and as a camera capturing the many forms that the flesh supported by the human osseous system takes. Within one kind of philosophical and religious inquiry, the cross-cultural study of myth, mythological philosophy (which, on the foundations of orienting tales that are larger than life, vividly posits frameworks for examining human issues) often co-operates with philosophical mythology (which explores extreme treatments of human issues in sweeping stories). While mythological philosophy sets forth the general rules governing an area of human concern, philosophical mythology limns credulity-straining cases that the ancient Greek polymath Aristotle (384–322 BCE), judging from his fragmentary Poetics, would have categorized as “the probable impossible” and that thus constitute memorable exceptions to those mythological philosophical rules—theories proven by nonpractices constituting articles of faith.

A fertile topic for such theoretical speculation and nonpractical demonstration is the finding and keeping of love. Mythological philosophers and philosophical mythologers considering human love have explored realms of counterfactual possibility—not only because all mortal lovers inevitably are separated (by death if not first by discord), but also because the status quibus (at least historically) have consisted in practically transacted partnerships. In crafting both the happy accidents of characters falling for each other and the reassuring permanence of their couplings, then, the love authors envision romantic alternatives.

For instance, in ancient Rome, in the face of the prevailing practice of arranged marriage, the poet Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE) issued a rallying cry to would-be lovers in his didactic Art of Love. Speaking predominantly to a monied male audience, Ovid encouraged its members to recast themselves as heroes sped by their ardor in the manner of epic warriors in barks over the sea and in chariots over the land. As venturers on the battlefield of love long before the birth and bardery of Patricia Benatar, these aspirants did not have far to travel physically, as their impresario of affection assured them that their love goddess Venus was very much at home in Rome. Advising his male charges to look for lovely and intelligent women in such venues for cultural congregation as the overflowing amphitheaters, Ovid adjured these men to tend their new loves carefully and to strive for mutual sexual satisfaction while eschewing any form of sexual compulsion or obligation.

Ovid treats an even stronger bond between two lovers that is forged with much less effort in his epic Metamorphoses. Here, in the Greek region of Thrace, the poet Orpheus and the water nymph Eurydice easily fall in love. As they marry, however, inauspicious omens forebode Eurydice’s sudden death by snakebite and her spirit’s descent into the underworld. In response, Orpheus musically makes his case for his wife’s revivification before the dead’s king and queen, Pluto and Proserpine. The divine couple and their realm’s denizens are moved to tears by Orpheus’s woeful songs. So he is allowed to lead his hobbled dead wife to the land of the living, as long as he does not look back at her on the way. But, out of concern for her welfare and out of desire to see her, he turns his head toward her. Consequently, she is drawn back to the dead and he lives out his remaining days without remarrying, contenting himself instead with the affections of male youths and enthralling the natural world with his love odes. Once he dies, however, at the hands of his scorned countrywomen more than a couple of years later, his spirit and Eurydice’s are rejoined forever.

Correspondingly re-united in a piece of philosophical mythology authored by the poet Kalidasa (c. 390–470 CE) in the mid-fifth century are the North Indian rulers Aja and Indumati.  In Kalidasa’s epic Raghuvamsha, Indumati lovingly chooses Aja as her bridegroom from a broad field of accomplished suitors. Repelling the spurned men’s ensuing attack, Aja installs Indumati as his queen in Ayodhya, where they live happily until a celestial garland touches her chest and lays her to rest. Bereft of his life’s love, Aja mourns her even after learning that she has been released from a previous life’s curse that had condemned her as a heavenly courtesan to be reborn on earth. Nevertheless, Aja musters the strength to rear Indumati’s and his son for eight years, to manhood, before relinquishing his own life in meditation and enjoying heaven with her.

Aja and Indumati’s love match counters the norm espoused in Vatsyayana’s third-century Kamasutra, which teaches that marriages generally should be arranged. Indeed, rapturous Aja acts much more like this love manual’s cosmopolite (a recurring cultured urbanite who traverses love’s battlefield in search of his ideal mate) than like a king (who typically keeps concubines and seeks additional conquests). Whereas a ruler usually has his underlings locate new lovers for him, a city-dweller himself fosters intimacy with his ongoing love interest by plying her with flowers, perfume, liquor, conversation, and musical entertainment.

Thus, the philosophical myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and of Aja and Indumati serve as subject as well as object lessons in love, for—thanks to the feminist film critic and maker Laura Mulvey—the men’s agency in attaining their absent wives in face of societal obstacles is apparent. Writing against the tides of their societies’ prevailing thoughts on and practices of marriage, Ovid and Kalidasa created dynamic renderings of enduring romance that innovatively induce in their readers awareness of the alternatives deduced as mythic philosophies and that, launching themselves from those frameworks, countervail their respective traditions. Philosophy of religion thus makes for the modern university much sumptuous food for thought at an intellectually inclusive banquet where bards sing for the pedagogical pleasure of many more people than merely kings.


Derek Malone-France on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

derek.malone-franceDerek Malone-France is Associate Professor Philosophy and of Religion at the George Washington University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I will take a somewhat different tack in answering this question than that taken by previous respondents. This is not because I disagree with the general drift of their responses, which have predominantly focused on the intrinsic value of philosophy of religion – that which is associated with the particular subjects studied and questions raised therein. But since they have already admirably defended the thesis that what we study within the field of philosophy of religion has significant value as part of the broader discursive landscape of the modern university – and, by extension, as part of modern culture at large, I feel free to use my response to describe another, distinct and, I think, substantial dimension of value that is offered by philosophy of religion to the modern university.

Not surprisingly, while discussing the intrinsic value of philosophy of religion as an academic field, a number of the previous respondents have pointed to the inherently interdisciplinary nature of the field as a primary source of its intellectual robustness, diversity, and relevance. The interdisciplinarity of philosophy of religion is especially broad, deep, and substantive, because the field not only straddles two traditional academic disciplinary categories – namely, ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ – but also one of those categories – namely, ‘religion’ – is not best understood as a ‘discipline’ at all, but rather, as a major (i.e., departmentalization-worthy) locus for a wide range of necessarily interdisciplinary modes of inquiry related to a shared object or theme of exploration.*

I would like to focus, here, on what we might call the extrinsic value of this particularly broad, deep, and substantive interdisciplinarity that is embodied in philosophy of religion, for the wider university. What I mean by this is, the value presented by philosophy of religion both: 1. as a model of what real, rigorous, authentically interdisciplinary work looks like (I don’t think I even need to argue for the claim that most of what passes for ‘interdisciplinarity’ at most universities today does not meet this standard), and 2. as a source of faculty and potential administrators who understand and know how to do – and to recognize, cultivate, and evaluate – such work.

I’ll illustrate this value with reference to my own somewhat eccentric career arc, which has afforded me the opportunity – and presented me with the necessity – to draw deeply upon the interdisciplinary training I received as a graduate student in a degree program in philosophy of religion. I have had to do so in order to understand and navigate parts of the university far removed from this field and, ultimately, to help other faculty and administrators, in those other parts of the university, to better understand and navigate the changing exigencies of research and teaching in an intellectual and social landscape that increasingly demands thought and action transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries and the institutional silos associated with them. I believe that I was better prepared to do all of that by my training in philosophy of religion than I would have been by training in almost any other academic field that currently exists—and I hold this belief as someone who has meaningfully surveyed far more of those other fields than most inhabitants of the modern university ever do.

I received my graduate training in philosophy of religion at Claremont Graduate University, at a moment in the life of that institution when the constellation of degree programs associated with the interdisciplinary study of religion were ascendant and expanding (and powerfully augmented by collaborative relationships with programs and faculty in related fields at the other Claremont Colleges and the Claremont School of Theology). There, I was exposed to the wide range of both philosophical and religious perspectives represented among the faculty, as well as perspectives and methods from an array of other disciplines, ranging from history, archeology, and linguistic anthropology to political, social, and media theory. Moreover, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, philosophy of religion is one of the few academic fields in which liberal and conservative, revisionary and traditionalist thinkers have never stopped talking to one another directly and taking each other’s positions and arguments seriously.

When I graduated in 2001, the great humanities retrenchment across American higher education was, of course, already well underway. With few good options available for employment as a philosopher of religion, per se, I accepted a five-year, faculty-like postdoctoral position in the innovative multidisciplinary University Writing Program – now the Thompson Writing Program – that had just been founded at Duke University. The Thompson Program was created to embody an emerging shift in composition theory and writing pedagogy, one that recognizes the counterproductive nature of traditional undergraduate writing curricula, in which students have historically been trained to think and write as though they would all become English majors.

In the new, multidisciplinary model of writing program, instructors are drawn from a wide range of disciplines, from across all of the academic divisions, and they learn from and collaborate with one another, in order to construct courses and curricula that encourage students to explore the wide diversity of research methods and writing conventions and genres represented by different disciplines and fields in the academy. The point is not to turn the students into a specific kind of writer but, rather, to teach them to move nimbly between the multiple forms of research and writing they will encounter as they navigate their way through the multivalent required and elective curricula they must pass through in order to graduate (and in life after graduation, as well).

Typically, such writing programs augment the introductory first-year writing course, in which students are initiated into this more complex and sophisticated understanding of the writerly environment they’ve entered, with additional, more advanced writing-focused courses in the various major and minor degree programs into which students eventually make their way. These “writing in the disciplines” (or, alternatively, “writing across the curriculum”) courses deepen students understanding of the specific research methods and writing conventions and genres associated with their chosen fields of study. Those who administer the writing in the disciplines (WID) components of writing curricula are typically responsible for recruiting disciplinary faculty from each of the undergraduate degree programs on their campuses, training these faculty in current best practices in writing pedagogy, and assisting them in constructing substantial and productive WID courses for their students.

Obviously, to do this sort of administrative and faculty development work well, one must learn as much as one can about the particularities of research and writing in each of the different disciplines and fields represented in the curriculum, in order to understand the unique exigencies of teaching and learning that faculty and students face in each of them. This requires deep and sustained conversation with not just the teaching faculty, but also the chairs and program directors, the undergraduate and graduate students, and graduate teaching assistants in each department or program. Such conversation, in turn, requires genuine curiosity about the methods and modes of thought at work in other disciplines and a high capacity for a sort of continuous re-training of oneself.

As a graduate of a program in philosophy of religion, I immediately felt at home in WID. What clearly seemed like an overwhelming (or just off-putting) expectation to many of my postdoctoral peers, who had been trained in more classically disciplinary fields, seemed to me both natural and exciting. It represented the opportunity to continue to expand the range of my knowledge and training across further disciplinary boundaries, in just the way I had been taught to do so in philosophy of religion. That is, to take each new field I entered seriously, on its own terms, to learn its methods and presuppositions as they are understood by its core practitioners. To be an intellectual polyglot, but not a dilettante. And, ultimately, thereby, to develop a vision of the modern university that recognizes both the overarching coherence of the total educational enterprise and the diversity of valid modes of inquiry and understanding represented therein. Of course, these capacities are not merely desiderata for those who work in writing programs; they are increasingly requirements of meaningful intellectual and practical engagement with the profound challenges facing the modern university and, indeed, humanity at-large.

Now, fifteen years on, I am a tenured faculty member at a major university, at which I hold appointments in three separate departments; I have served as Executive Director of a writing program that serves ~15,000 students per year at both the undergraduate and graduate levels; and I have founded multiple successful interdisciplinary centers and initiatives, drawing substantial external funding and attention to my university. All of this – my own hard-fought climb up the faculty ladder and the contributions I have made to my institution – was made possible, in no small part, by the intellectual flexibility, curiosity, and humility about other ways of analyzing and interpreting the world that has been instilled in me through my graduate training and ongoing professional experience in philosophy of religion.

In this time of great and pervasive intellectual and cultural upending in which we are caught, the modern university can use as many people with such flexibility, open-mindedness, and humility as it can get. And those graduating with degrees in philosophy of religion should look for every opportunity to leverage their capacities in these regards, to forward their own careers, as well as the collective aims of higher education.
* It seems worth noting that, along their way to justifying the intrinsic value of the field of philosophy of religion, the previous respondents have, I think, also presented the outlines of a compelling collective case for the claim that the category of ‘religion’ – howsoever complicated and contested it may be – is conceptually coherent enough to justify its being – and continuing to be – such a locus.

Jim Kanaris on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

jim kanarisJim Kanaris is Professor of Religious Studies at McGill University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion, at least as a university exercise, comes in different sizes and shapes. As a practice that evolved from ancient Greece through medieval Europe to modern and contemporary empiricisms and rationalisms, the preoccupation has tended to be with fundamental topics such as proofs for God’s existence and theodicy brought to bear through issues of logic, language theory, and cosmology. This analytic approach continues to be the dominant form of “philosophy of religion”. One finds it commonly in philosophy departments, also embodied in the more normative discourse of philosophical theology practiced in professional schools of theology. A younger development stems largely from German schools of thought in the nineteenth century, to which contemporary French forms are indebted in their significantly less topical, political-hermeneutical restructuring of the field. Conveniently dubbed continental, one finds this approach in philosophy departments in both Europe and North America, although in Europe one senses an indifference to identifying with a subfield of philosophy of religion as such. It is also the more dominant form of philosophizing found in religion departments, a fact that is hardly surprising when one considers that continental reflection birthed comparative religion.

What philosophy of religion offers the modern university is an arresting question. How one answers it will depend on the type of philosophy of religion one practices, which is usually shaped by the environment in which one teaches it and the professional communities with which one associates. Philosophy of religion in a philosophy department, for example, will have an aim different from philosophy of religion in a theology department or religious studies program. In one context the aim is to introduce students to epistemological issues such as whether religious language is properly understood in, say, realist or nonrealist terms. In another context the aim will differ slightly, developing the normative claims of a specific tradition philosophically, either in terms exclusive to that tradition or in comparison to other traditions. In still another context the aim may be to critically assess religious beliefs and practices as one siphons off issues surrounding humanity’s existential plight or as one connects them to some social-political reality. In my estimation all the positions in this admittedly broad taxonomy possess a legitimacy, especially if our aim is to avoid parochialism. Be that as it may, philosophers of religion have their preferences, the more responsible ones aim to address a divided field.

For the purposes of this blog, I wish to bracket these boundary questions and focus instead on my own teaching environment, which happens to be religious studies. This forces me to think differently about philosophy of religion. Ironically, in my desire to avoid parochialism, my contribution to this question does seem dangerously close to being parochial. Nevertheless, its application is, I believe, transdisciplinary.

One thing is certain: there is a deep wedge between the student demographic in religious studies and the concerns and procedures of the card-carrying philosopher of religion. The specificities of the intellectual culture and history surrounding those procedures are no longer privileged in global consciousness. The inclusion of diverse perspectives, whose religious worldviews are assessed in terms of their logical weight, continues to have remedial value. But the extension of this analytic procedure is simultaneously too specific and general to be wholly effective in religious studies. It’s too specific in the sense of being bound to a tradition of philosophy whose aims have been quite apologetic and modelled on western scientific ideals. It’s too general in the sense that this approach tends to essentialize religious traditions. Ever since at least modern classics as Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s Meaning and End of Religion (1962) and Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), to mention only two examples, students of religion have developed a dyspeptic sense when confronted by the analytic mien. Issues of power, status, and identity tend to take precedence displacing the traditional platform of knowledge while extending it to the problem of representation (Carrette 2010, 277).

In this environment the role of philosophy can be both object- and subject-constitutive. That is, in a revamped form of “epistemology”, philosophy links up here with an issue-based attention to “socio-economic disparities, environmental degradation, and ongoing biases linked to race, sexual orientation, or colonial exploitation” (Rodrigues and Harding 2009, 104). This object-constitutive approach replaces the systematic scholastic and analytic orientations of pre-modern and modern epistemology with the critical cultural strategies of contemporary theorizing about religion. Philosophy holds much promise in this regard for critical scholarship attuned not so much to the cognitive dimension of religious beliefs as to the historicality (Geschichtlichkeit) of diverse religious phenomena. A hybrid form of such philosophical-methodological interests exists already in religious studies represented in diversified forms by Donald Wiebe, Mark C. Taylor, David Chidester, Jonathan Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon, Ivan Strenski, and Talal Asad.

The subject-constitutive emphasis dovetails with these interests but emphasizes subjective agency in the task. It joins with the “artistic thinking” of Pierre Hadot and Alexander Nehamas who have reinstalled the ancient practice of philosophy in the academy as a way of life and art of living. The position is a live option today thanks to the pioneering work of Friedrich Nietzsche and his contemporary disciple Michel Foucault—one could throw in Søren Kierkegaard for good measure; and Heidegger? Why not! My own sense about this artistry harks back to the transcendental tradition. It manages philosophical issues broadly in terms of self-critical reflexivity. The singularity of the self is its guiding principle, an irreducible hyper-transcendental that ensures that the individuality of the inquirer is not lost in object-constitutive discourses. In religious studies this means that one’s own intellectual, moral, religious, and political horizons become an explicit means to arbitrate an objectified relationality of concerns: text to self, politics to self, transcendence to self, alterity to self, and what have you. One wouldn’t be wrong to call it personalism, although my preference is to call it “enecstatic”, a disposition that signals a post-Heideggerian ontic preoccupation. In addition to those just mentioned, the thinking of Bernard Lonergan and what he calls self-appropriation has been particularly serviceable. Self-appropriation means precisely what it says, taking possession of one’s self but in the sense of taking responsibility to engage the self as one engages and is engaged by the other, whether that other is an object or a subject. It’s a decisive and personal act that is uninterrupted. An important outcome is to recognize that “[g]enuine objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity” (Lonergan 1972, 292). I translate what Lonergan means by “authentic subjectivity” in a context that reflects the current non-foundationalist climate in philosophy of religion and religious studies.

Enecstasis provides an opportunity for students to negotiate their own sensibility regarding objects that they are often (rightly) encouraged to examine dispassionately. Nevertheless, in this epoché of the personal, the desire to be engaged attaches to an object that disenfranchises students from self-awareness and involvement. Their voice is never really lost, of course, but it resonates as though from another room. Taking possession of it is not something students of religion think of because the room they’re in invariably averts their attention. And yet the alienation is experienced deeply, often viscerally, confusedly. Enecstasis, then, disrupts ideological commitments in religious studies whose object-constitutive presuppositions and methods marginalize a holistic and personal mediation of meaning. As such enecstatic analysis provides a space for participants to decide for themselves how to implement the level and relevance of their engagement. A sociologist will have a different appreciation of how he is implicated in the construction of a religious phenomenon from the historian constructing religious meanings. A philosopher of religion will have to decide for herself how her understanding of mystical experience impacts and is impacted by her being-in-the-world. Theologians must do the same but vis-à-vis the norms of their tradition and the scales of dislocation embodied in the God before whom they learn to dance.

Enecstatic philosophy of religion is ultimately philosophy of religious studies. It includes—indeed, has been generated by—the issues and concerns of analytic and continental philosophies of religion. However, enecstatic philosophy of religion transcends the particularities of these philosophies in providing a space for the personal negotiation of one’s intellectual, moral, religious, and political foundations. Philosophy of religion, religious studies, and theology provide the content and methods of such a focus, enecstasis the contemporary ability to sense their relevance in a personally appropriated subjectivity formed by academic concerns. In an age where student indifference is at an all-time high the importance of such an exercise in the modern university seems beyond question. I see it in undergraduate and graduate students each term as their eyes light up in the realization that they matter, that they have a voice and ought to develop it critically, that is, with a heightened sense of self-awareness.

Works Cited

Cantwell Smith, Wilfred. 1962. The Meaning and End of Religion. New York: Macmillan.

Carrette, Jeremy. 2010. “Post-structuralism and the Study of Religion.” In The Routledge

Companion to the study of Religion, 2d edn., edited by John Hinnells, 274-290. London and New York: Routledge.

Lonergan, Bernard. 1972. Method in Theology. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

Rodrigues, Hillary and John S. Harding. 2009. Introduction to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books Edition.

Diane Proudfoot on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Diane_Proudfoot_croppedDiane Proudfoot is Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Canterbury in New Zealand. We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Alma is a smart mathematics student, taking a philosophy of religion course as an elective. She is fired up by the passion of the new atheists. In the class she reads Anselm for the first time. The teacher takes Anselm’s side, using his intricate arguments to bat away the cruder positions of Dawkins and Harris. Alma, at first grudgingly and then with signs of real enjoyment, writes as her assignment a debate between Pascal and Hitchens. Hitchens still wins but Alma signs on for a double major in mathematics and philosophy.

Bart is studying sociology and anthropology, and has already taken classes in the sociology of religion. The philosophy course is merely a filler. As far as Bart is concerned, philosophy of religion is an anachronism—‘Truth, there’s no such thing’ he says confidently. Many of the other students in the class are survivors of epistemology and metaphysics courses, and they poke holes in Bart’s naïve relativism. Bart is at a loss until he learns how to counter his classmates’ arguments. He goes on, nevertheless, to use the very same arguments against his sociology professors.

Carl has had a religious education and is still unsure whether or not to enroll in seminary. He is a serious, older student taking time out from his work as a history teacher; he signed up for a philosophy of religion class with the assumption that it would be a theology primer. Initially Carl finds the expectation that he clarify and even justify his faith (or justify his lack of justification) subversive and discomfiting. Then he begins to separate those of his beliefs that he considers up for scrutiny from those that remain sacrosanct. There is far more of the former than he ever suspected, and Carl finds this liberating.

These three case studies (composites of real individuals) illustrate the fact that, at its best, analytic philosophy of religion offers students a rare opportunity to have their preconceptions about fundamentals uncovered and challenged. With this comes the possibility of growth and change. Students also develop the skill of open-minded analysis. Employers and academic guardians of liberal values should—and in my experience do—value this skill highly.

If philosophy of religion is to remain a powerful tool for change, however, it must escape from the staid mid-20th century curriculum. It must include serious discussion of current science, the implications and problems of religious diversity, and the ethics of religious freedom. These are the topics in the media and at the forefront of students’ minds.

I am writing this blog from Jerusalem. Anyone in modern universities who thinks that philosophy of religion is irrelevant should visit.